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UN Discusses New Internet Copyright Treaty

The World Intellectual Property Organization is discussing a new treaty that could drastically change copyright rules and use of the Internet. The effort is intensifying debate between broadcasters, who produce programs, and consumer groups that want free access to the programs through the Internet.

The Intellectual Property Organization, a U.N. agency, says existing international standards of rights and protections for broadcasters and the public must be upgraded to make them relevant in the age of digital technology

It says this is needed because new delivery systems for radio and television programs, and the availability of such material over the Internet, have made it easier for films, music and other mass-media products to be copied and distributed illegally.

The Washington-based private group called the Consumer Project on Technology says the new rules being discussed in Geneva would grant too many rights to broadcasters.

The project's director, James Love, says he opposes the proposed treaty, because it would allow broadcasters to regain control over material that has lost its copyright and is in the public domain, available to consumers for free.

"It actually takes things that are in the public domain, which are not owned by anyone, and it extends ownership rights for 50 years," he said. "In one proposal, the 50 years restarts every time you rebroadcast the work. And, so it is almost a perpetual right. The artists themselves are in opposition to the treaty, because they believe that it shifts the power away from them. They feel that they are the weak party vis-ŕ-vis the broadcasters. So, they think it sets up the broadcasters to have syndication rights, re-distribution, rental. They feel that the broadcaster then starts to take over the process of distributing the works."

On the other side of the debate is the U.S. National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group that represents the interests of about 1,000 television and radio stations in the United States. One of its lawyers, Benjamin Ivins says the consumer group's argument is completely false.

"Even though that work, the content, is in the public domain, the protection of the signal and the effort that the broadcaster went through in providing that work, making it available for public performance to the public ought to be protected," he said. "That has nothing to do with the inherent public domain status of the work."

Mr. Ivins says the aim of the treaty is to protect the investment the broadcasters put into producing the programs, and the increased investment often required to update them years later. He says older works that are in the public domain would stay there. But he says companies that enhance older material and release it in a new form, would have a copyright on that new version.

While controversy continues to swirl over that issue, the United States has introduced a proposal that is sparking a new controversy. The U.S. proposal would protect the copyrights of Internet Web site operators. The aim is to protect the work of the people who prepare the material and maintain the Web sites. But critics say the proposal would hurt Internet consumers in developing countries, who now believe they can freely use Internet material in any way they want.